The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: It’s Valentine’s Day 2018. Let us now praise musical couples and say what music we would play to celebrate romantic love

February 14, 2018

ALERT: If you are a fan of new music, you might not want to miss a FREE concert this Thursday night at 8 p.m. in Mills Hall by the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

The program of “Ideas and Landscapes,” assembled and directed by UW’s award-winning composer Laura Schwendinger, includes works by UW students and alumni as well as a world premiere of a work for solo oboe by Schwendinger herself.

For more details about the composers, the performers and the complete program, go to:

By Jacob Stockinger

It is Valentine’s Day 2018, and music plays a big role in celebrating the holiday — as the portrait of Cupid (below) expresses.

This week, musician and teacher Miles Hoffman was featured by National Public Radio (NPR) on the program “Morning Edition” with a most appropriate story about famous musical couples who were also linked romantically.

The Ear was particularly pleased that a same-sex couple  – British composer Benjamin Britten (below left) and British tenor Peter Pears (below right) — was recognized during this time when the homophobic administration of President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence keeps attacking the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people under the guise of protecting and promoting religious tolerance. The leaders use the concept of religious freedom as camouflage for bigotry, zealotry and prejudice. 

But more conventional and traditional couples were also recognized, and deservedly so.

Here is a link to the story that also contains some wonderful musical samples:

And here is what The Ear wants to know:

First: Can you think of other musical couples – especially local ones — to single out for recognition on Valentine’s Day? The Karp family as well as pianists-singers Bill Lutes and Martha Fischer plus singers Cheryl Bensman Rowe and Paul Rowe, conductor Kyle Knox and Madison Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Naha Greenholtz, and violinist Soh-Hyun Park Altino and cellist Leonardo Altino all come immediately to mind. But surely there are others The Ear has overlooked.

Second: What piece of classical music would you listen to or play in order to express love for your Valentine?

Leave the names and information, with a YouTube link if possible, in the COMMENT section.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!


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Classical music: Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The murdered civil rights leader has become a character in opera, oratorios and musicals as well as popular songs

January 15, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the holiday to celebrate the 89th birthday of Martin Luther King (below), the American civil rights pioneer who was born on this day in 1929, won the Nobel Peace Prize and was assassinated in 1968, when he was 39.

For more biographical information, here is the Wikipedia entry:

There will be many celebrations, including the 38th annual one at noon in the State Capitol of Wisconsin in Madison, which will be broadcast live and recorded by Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and Wisconsin Public Television (WPT).

Music is always an important art of honoring King. There will be spirituals and gospel choirs.

But King himself has become a musical, and dramatic, figure.

Maybe you knew that.

The Ear didn’t.

So here are some links to sample from YouTube, which has many of King’s speeches and much of the music done to honor King over the years.

MLK is a character is the opera by Philip Glass called “Appomattox,” which deals with civil rights from The Civil War onwards and was commissioned and performed by the Washington National Opera.

Here is part of it in rehearsal:

And in performance:

And here is the one-hour video called “I Have a Dream”:

Do you know of any other musical works in which Martin Luther King Jr. actually figures and plays a role?

What piece of classical music would you choose to honor King?- Perhaps the poignant aria “Give Me Freedom” from Handel’s opera “Rinaldo” (performed in the YouTube video at the bottom) or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy” finale about universal brotherhood.

Let us know in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.

Classical music: NPR explores Opus 1 works to mark Jan. 1 and New Year’s Day

January 3, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, the media look for new ways to mark the holidays and especially New Year’s Day.

One of the best and most original The Ear has seen and heard in a long time came from National Public Radio (NPR).

On Morning Edition, the radio network consulted Miles Hoffman (below), a violist, conductor and educator, about the first works – the Opus 1 works – that various composers published.

Hoffman’s remarks touch on quite a few young composers and prodigies, including Ludwig van Beethoven (below top), Felix Mendelssohn (below middle) and Ernst von Dohnanyi (below bottom).

Here is a link to the story, which should be listened to, and not just read, for the sake of the music and sound samples:

And from YouTube here are two more Opus 1 works that The Ear would add.

The first is the Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1, by a young Frédéric Chopin (below, in a drawing from Getty Images) and performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy. It shows just how early Chopin had found his own style and his own distinctive voice:

And here are the “Abegg” Variations by critic-turned-composer Robert Schumann (below), played by Lang Lang:

Can you think of other Opus 1 works to add to the list?

Please leave the composer’s name, the work’s title and a YouTube link to a performance, if possible, in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are recommendations for post-Christmas shopping

December 27, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Well, it’s time to start using those gifts cards you got for Hanukkah,  Christmas and other holidays.

Or maybe just to treat yourself.

In any case, here are two more lists of top classical recordings of 2017.

Maybe you will find something of interest.

The first list has the Top 10 recordings chosen by National Public Radio (NPR) and its Deceptive Cadence blog. It has photo and sound samples:

And here is a list of the Top 10 from The Classical Review, along with some runners-up or honorable mentions:

Earlier in December this blog features other lists.

Here are links to some in case you need a reminder or want to compare lists and look for overlaps and agreement, such as the CD of piano music by Philip Glass in the YouTube video at the bottom:

Here are the nominations for the upcoming Grammy Awards:

Here is a list from critics for The New York Times:

Here is a link to lists by the Chicago Tribune, Gramophone Magazine and Forbes magazine:


Classical music: Spend at least part of Christmas Eve with Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”

December 24, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Merry Christmas Eve, all.

The Ear hopes you can spend at least part of it with some sections of “The Christmas Oratorio” by Johann Sebastian Bach — perhaps The Ear’s favorite holiday work.

Here it is, in a YouTube video with a spirited early music performance by the critically acclaimed, expert forces of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir:

What is your favorite holiday music?

Leave the name, the composer and, if possible, a link to a YouTube performance in the COMMENT section.

Cheers to all!


Classical music: The Middleton Community Orchestra draws its largest crowd yet as it rings in the New Year with Viennese waltzes, ethnic dances and violin showpieces

December 22, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. He also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

On Wednesday night, the mostly amateur Middleton Community Orchestra (below)  had the last word of the December holiday season with a distinctly non-Christmas program.

To be sure, it was not a typical concert devoted to a tiny handful of major works. Rather, conductor Kyle Knox (below) devised something a cut above simplistic “pops” programming, with a clutch of nearly a dozen short works, each one of charm and substance—more like what Sir Thomas Beecham used to call “lollipops.”

The opener was a group of three selections from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. There followed three of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms intermingled with two of the Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, in their orchestral versions.

The first half then closed with the first of two pieces featuring the conductor’s wife, violinist Naha Greenholtz (below), who is also the concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. This was a kind of mini-concerto tidbit by Tchaikovsky, his Danse Russe.

The high point of the program’s second half was the second violin solo for Greenholz. Ravel’s Tzigane is a contemplation of Gypsy style. It begins with a wild unaccompanied solo for the violin, to which the orchestra then joins in a colorful set of variations. Here the playing by Greenholz was simply dazzling.

(You can hear Ravel’s virtuosic “Tzigane” — played by superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta —  in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Otherwise, the second half of the program was a bit of old Vienna, via Johann Strauss II, perhaps hinting at that city’s famous New Year’s Concert.

Setting the scene was the overture to Die Fledermaus. Knox’s direction throughout showed a lot of hard work to bring off all the selections with precision, but I often felt that he strove mainly for exuberance at the cost of subtleties. Notably in this overture, it seemed to me that the strings, especially the violins, sounded a bit coarse, certainly below their best ensemble polish.

But doubts were certainly dispelled with one Strauss miniature, the Persian March, followed by that noblest of the composer’s achievements, the Kaiserwalzer or Emperor Waltz.

All in all, this worked as a responsible seasonal treat. It seemed to me that it drew the largest audience that the Middleton Community Orchestra has yet had, and this audience simply loved everything.

So, if you will, Happy New Year!


Classical music: A solo marimba concert this Friday night features Bach transcriptions and holiday favorites

December 20, 2017
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By Jacob Stockinger

Marimbist Matthew Coley (below), who plays in the Madison-based percussion group Clocks in Motion, will give a solo recital this Friday night at 7 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The program features transcriptions of Preludes and Fugue Nos. 1-6 of Book II of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Coley plans on eventually performing all of Book II.

Holiday music on the concert will include “Sleigh Ride,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Frosty the Snowman” and more.

Admission is free with a suggested donation of $15.

For more information about Matthew Coley, go to the website:

Coley regularly tours the nation and abroad, offering solo concerts and master classes. He has performed in more than 35 states in the U.S. and in 10 countries. (You can hear Coley performing his own composition “Circularity” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

He is the founding executive director of Heartland Marimba with five affiliate initiatives under the organization: the Heartland Marimba Quartet, HMFestival, HMEnsemble, HMPublications, and SoundWAYS.

This year’s holiday tour will also take Matthew to Chicago; Cedar Falls, Iowa; Mount Pleasant, Iowa; Quincy, Ill.; St Paul, Minn.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:


Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir will sing a varied holiday program about peace on Earth this coming Saturday night

December 13, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) will sing its holiday concert featuring works about peace on Earth.

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. in the Atrium Auditorium, (below, in a photo by Zane Williams) of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Bay Drive.

The holiday message of peace and good will to all people resonates across the centuries. Tragically, the proclamation, “Peace on earth” is every bit as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago.

WCC director and conductor Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who directs the choral program at the UW-Whitewater and who is celebrating his 10th season with the group, writes in his program notes to the concert:

“According to New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, “Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” “This evening’s program by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir explores humanity’s yearning for peace through the centuries. 

The centerpiece of the WCC’s 2017 holiday concert is British composer Gerald Finzi’s exquisite retelling of the Christmas story, In terra pax, for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra. Baritone Brian Leeper (below top) and soprano Ann Baltes (below bottom) are among the featured soloists, performing with members of Sinfonia Sacra, the WCC’s professional orchestra.

In his own program notes, Finzi explained that the Nativity “becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Chrismas Eve, in our own familiar landscape.”

Finzi scholar Andrew Burn elaborates: “On New Year’s Eve, 1926, the 25-year old Gerald Finzi (below) joined the bell-ringers of the tiny church of St. Bartholomew perched on the crest of Chosen Hill, near Gloucester, as they rang in the New Year. For Finzi, the experience was unforgettable—the frosty starlit night with bells ringing out from churches far and near across the Severn valley—and from it sprang the orchestral New Year Music and [25 years later] In terra pax, his last major composition.

In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature. Finzi’s pacifism is at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously together. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn Lasst uns erfreuen (‘Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones”).”  (You can hear the opening of the work in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Complementing Finzi’s music are two other works with instrumental accompaniment: Felix Mendelssohn’s moving prayer for peace, Verleih uns Frieden, and an energetic Gloria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in A major.

Several more recent works bring the concert’s message up to date, including Cry Peace by Libby Larsen (below top) and the haunting Winter Solstice Carol by Giles Swayne (below bottom).

A varied selection of carol arrangements rounds out the program, including a resplendent setting of Silent Night by one of the WCC’s favorite composers, Peter Bloesch (below).

Founded in 1998, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Bach, Mozart and Brahms; a cappella works from various centuries; and world premieres.

Advance tickets for the Dec. 16 performance are available for $20 ($10 for students) from, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Coop (all three locations).

Tickets will also be available at the door for $25 ($10 for students).


Classical music: The UW Choral Union and UW Symphony Orchestra deliver outstanding performances of great music by Mozart and Brahms

December 12, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT-FM 89.9. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison. Barker also took the performance photos.

By John W. Barker

The program for the first concert this season by the UW Choral Union (below), mercifully, had nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, and just offered great music.

There were only two works, one by Brahms and the other by Mozart. Surefire!

Johannes Brahms composed three relatively short works for chorus, without soloists, and orchestra. Of these, I wish conductors would get busy with two of them in particular. The Gesang der Parzen (Song of the Fates) and Nänie are simply superb works by one of the greatest of all choral composers.

The third, the Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), Op. 54, I would rate just a bit lower for musical content, but that is the one of the three that is more frequently performed, and that was the one we heard.

That said, there is much quite beautiful music in the piece, which sets a poem of Friedrich Hölderlin that moves from anxiety to desperation. Brahms (below) preceded the choral setting with a serene introduction that—to satisfy his aesthetics if not the poet’s—he repeats at the end to restore order.

Conductor Beverley Taylor (below) employed rather broad tempos, but this enabled her to bring out some of the melodic material with great beauty.

And, with a chorus of some 124 singers, she was able to give the music tremendous sonority, if a bit at the price of German diction. With the very good UW Symphony Orchestra in fine fettle, too, this was an excellent performance that should alert listeners to neglected treasures.

The main work was the unfinished “Great” Mass in C minor, K. 427, by Mozart (below). This is music inspired by the composer’s marriage and by the new (for him) artistic climate of Vienna. Even incomplete – it has a fragmentary “Credo” and is missing an “Agnus Dei”) — it still stands, with his also uncompleted Requiem, as a towering masterpiece of his sacred choral output.

Taylor displayed a fine feeling for both the overall and individual qualities of the work, projecting them with vigor and discipline.

There were four student soloists (below), with promising young voices.

But eventually the standout proved to be soprano Sarah Richardson (below). The operatic-style aria, “Et incarnatus est” from the “Credo” was apparently sung by Mozart’s wife in its preliminary performance, and is often heard as a separate solo number today. This was sung by Richardson (below) with skill and eloquence. (You can hear the aria in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

This chorus was really a bit oversized for a work like this, but Taylor made it the real star of the performance, in singing with both power and precision.

A truly rewarding concert!


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